BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Hikers this summer in the remote Shawnee National Forest near Carbondale, Illinois, must have quickly gone off path when a determined marathoner in hot pursuit of desperate criminals ran their way. They needn’t have worried—it was all part of the Philip Plowden independent film, Range Runners, shot in that usually tranquil location.
Son of David Plowden, a photographer who captures the American landscape and its people like no other, Philip loves to make movies outdoors and followed his father’s words of advice given to him the day before he headed south with his team: “Don’t be afraid to adapt.” We asked Philip about adapting to the wilderness and creating an electrifying film with a twist he’s not revealing:
“Range Runners was a tough, gritty shoot: the elements, being in the woods, the bugs and ticks and the sweltering heat. It was visceral and demanding, including hiking distances to certain locations, the humping of gear in and out. We all carried things to help ease the load and speed up the shoot day. We were constantly under the pressure of the clock. Whether it was the SAG hours or losing daylight, we always had to move quickly because at our budget bracket, we couldn’t afford much overtime.
“The amount of script we had to cover on each individual day always seemed like more than we could handle on paper, on the schedule. But we did it. We shot 18 days. We knuckled down and took on on the meat of the film and the heavier, scripted scenes first. I wanted to make sure we focused on what was important and saved the rest for a lighter day.”
Like other independent filmmakers in Chicago, Philip had an ambitious story to tell on a shoestring budget:
“I feel showcasing local, Chicago-based talent for our feature was a good strategy. I wanted actors from Chicago who were hungry for a meaty role and up to the challenge. There’s so much talent in our city and the more we can highlight that with our projects, the better. Celeste Cooper, Sean Patrick Leonard, and Michael B. Woods were phenomenal to work with and absorbed their roles with vigor.”
Philip’s business partner, Devon Colwell, wrote the script and serves as an Executive Producer.
The plot evolves around a marathoner who runs into trouble. While on a remote forest path, desperate criminals confront her, steal her backpack, and leave her for dead. Determined not to be a victim, she goes after them, creating quite an odyssey and story of survival. It is Philip’s first feature film and is now in post-production at Periscope Post & Audio in Chicago. Range Runners will have its world premiere in the first quarter of 2019 and appear at highly recognized film festivals.
You are shooting outside in a national park in the summertime with campers, mosquitos, rain showers, and lots of other challenges. How did you follow your father’s advice to adapt?
We adapted quite a lot. You can have a plan and then on the shooting day, it can all change in an instant. Weather, gear, performance—you might find something out about the scene isn’t working on the day. So you have to adapt: cut lines of dialogue, lose props, change coverage, etc.
As an artist you must be able to change plans. I didn’t want to get stuck in some ideal just because it looked good during rehearsals or on paper in pre-production. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. It simply means your plan changed. So hop aboard and let’s get it done this way.
In addition to filming, Philip works for the popular TV series Chicago P.D. in management and location scouting. Married with daughters aged two and four, Philip was delighted when his wife brought the girls to shoots in both Park Ridge and Carbondale.
Indie films are more and more in demand. Tell us why you think that is.
Independent films are becoming more and more popular with audiences, perhaps because of all the big Hollywood sequels. Audiences are looking for stories that are realistic and visceral—something they can relate to that has content, not just a popcorn experience.
Is Chicago a great location for shooting independent films?
The tax credits offer more opportunities for smaller budget movies—it’s exciting to see that more and more films are being shot in Illinois using digital platforms. I graduated from Columbia College, which offers great training. But there is no substitute for the hands-on work you are doing on the set.
What are the skill sets that are necessary to make movies in addition to the training you receive?
There are several things, but patience is first—it takes a lot to get a project off the ground. You have to have thick skin and know that you do have potential. Don’t listen to the outside noise—remain positive and believe in yourself. Concentrate on making something of quality.
What do you see as the job of the director?
On set, being in command as a director means several different things when working with a team. Sometimes you lead by example. You run with the actor. You get under the waterfall first before asking your star to follow you in.
Sometimes you lead by telling people how to do things with a plan or a simple adjustment. By using your voice. They learn to trust in your decisions.
Sometimes you lead by sitting back, shutting up, and letting the professionals do their jobs. It reminds me of a quote from Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do.” We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. As a director I allow myself to trust in my performers, my technicians and fellow artists.
When we are doing a stunt where we are rolling a stunt performer down a 42-foot hill, I have no notes as a director. I simply want to see it done well and see it done safely. And I trust my stunt coordinator and the performer he has chosen. I trust that they know what I want and will execute it.
When we are pressed for time and my director of photography says, ‘Let’s shoot it this way because we can cover more of the scene to avoid more setups,’ I don’t argue with him because I didn’t think about it first. I say, Yes, let’s do it that way instead. This makes more sense. It’s like a manager putting in his best pinch hitter in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs and watching as he hits a home run and wins the game.
Sometimes you have to ride your big horses to the finish line.
How do you work with your actors?
I’m all about the actors and their performances: what they feel, how they express it. I’m often right there with them during an emotional scene, experiencing it with them, by the camera or by their side. I don’t like being behind monitor. I like to set up the shots and watch that during a rehearsal by monitor. I’m very visual and like to see frame and know what the camera is shooting, but I’m by no means a ‘technical director.’
During the take it’s important for me to look into the actor’s eyes—to watch them closely and to ensure their performance is genuine. I often ask them if they want another take before moving into a new setup. Or I ask them questions about how they feel about the scene and ask them for suggestions.
I don’t yell. I believe in running a set calmly, collectedly. I try always to have a plan and never lose my temper or raise my voice at anyone. Some might think this is the opposite of what a director should do, but I disagree. You don’t have to scream and yell in order to be heard or get what you want from those working for you.
The actors respected this. When I’m giving them notes, I’m holding a private conversation with them at a whisper and never yell at them in front of the crew from behind monitor.
Christian Crocker, RoseMary Prodonovich, and Christopher Ganze are the film Producers. Darryl Miller was the director of photography and Aaron Crippen was stunt coordinator.
“You will never see ‘A Film by Philip S. Plowden’ during the titles of any of the films I direct. This is arrogant in a business where we create art and make films as a team. I can’t do this alone, and I don’t intend to say this is my film alone or that I’m the lone author of it. I directed it. I crafted the original story with Devon, my business partner, but I share the final results with everyone that contributed to it. It is our film, and I want people to be proud of creating with us.